The neon sign above the stage at the new Turbine Theatre, Battersea, hints at the lights of New York City, but it also reminds us of the history behind director Drew McOnie’s production of Torch Song, illuminating the title given to each section of its original form as three one-act plays, International Stud, Fugue In A Nursery and Widows And Children First!
Torch Song is a complex mix of melancholy, anger, witty and piercing humour, love and venom.
Writer Harvey Fierstein combined them into Torch Song Trilogy in1981. The play stands out amongst gay-themed drama as being the last to be written before the AIDS issue began to dominate the genre. Fierstein wrote just as the HIV virus was emerging within the community as a mysterious phenomenon about which little was known and which certainly hadn’t been sufficiently recognised as to make into a subject for the stage. The deeply moving, tragic and bitingly funny full-length version ran to over fours hours and by the end there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Fierstein not could not only write with passion, he could perform with profound emotional integrity; after all, it is his story in more ways the one. Realising it was probably too much for modern theatres he revised it in 2017, creating the current Torch Song version that fits into a neat two and a half hours with interval.
The traditional sentiments of unrequited and lost love found in a torch song permeate the play. Arnold (Matthew Needham) is in the dressing room surrounded by the makeup and glamorous outfits of his drag queen character. The glitz is all hers; for him there is only loneliness and a loveless life interspersed with anonymous encounters in the dark room. Hope appears in the form of the confused bisexual Ed (Dino Fetscher). Both imagine life together with an adopted son, Alan (Rish Shah), but Ed’s marriage to Laurel (Daisy Boulton) and a devastating tragedy put an end to that, though the relationship still simmers. A few years later Arnold is in the process of adopting David (Jay Lycurgo), a schoolboy rescued from the streets. It’s an exciting, challenging, yet comforting time for him until his Ma (Bernice Stegers) announces she is arriving from Miami. Will he ever unearth the love there or be able to utter his own?
Torch Song is a complex mix of melancholy, anger, witty and piercing humour, love and venom. To make these ingredients into a completely satisfying end product requires enormous skill in both performance and direction. No one can doubt Needham’s ability, following his recent portrayal of John Buchanan in Summer and Smoke, yet here he never seems to possess the same meticulous control he demonstrated there and that is true of others too. The humour is there, but not enough of it lands. The despair and frustration that he and Fetscher portray is there, but it needs to be deeper. Boulton does what’s necessary to be the woman in the middle but Stegers, gifted with some of the best humour in the play, races through it in an accent that hovers around Brooklyn, but doesn’t always stay there, and she’s not the only one with that problem. She gives some impassioned speeches but like so much else, more time is needed in delivery to bring out the nuances. In lighter roles, Shah and Lycurgo, give impressive stage debuts appearing relaxed and at home in their respective roles.
The new theatre can seat up to two hundred people. It’s a compact, under-the-arch space with exposed brick walls and the noise of trains rattling aloft. The style will be familiar to those who knew Above the Stag in Vauxhall before its recent move to a bigger arch. The diamond stage layout brings the action into the audience and Ryan Laight has done an excellent job in creating a cleverly versatile set that copes with providing the required locations and the need to cook breakfast. Lighting by James Whiteside and sound by Seb Frost complement it very well in addition to creating mood changes.
Whatever reasons there were for choosing this as the opening production, in the hands of McOnie it’s turned into a missed opportunity to effectively deliver a remarkable script. Nowhere do the highs reach the sky or the lows take us to the bottom of the pit. Hence the laughter hardly rings out and tears certainly don’t fall.